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Who Killed the Electric Car?

Year: 2006
Production Co: Plinyminor
Director: Chris Paine
Writer: Chris Paine
Cast: Phyllis Diller, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Alexandra Paul, Martin Sheen
Movies in the 21st century are shaping up to be the most important medium we have. The other mass media - radio, TV and newsprint - all tell the right-wing, conservative story. They're owned by the media conglomerates for whom the capitalist status quo must be maintained to ensure ongoing profits; continued war in Iraq, continued manipulation (as opposed to shortages) of oil supply, the continued dissemination of media-as-entertaining-distraction rather than media-as-informer.

With the cross media ownership laws reformed (read: dismantled) by the Packer and Murdoch empires... sorry, Howard and Coonan in the last few weeks, the situation on your screens and in your newspapers will only become more hysterical in their reportage of this weeks terrorist or paedophile threat, bland rock star or reality show.

But the world of film seems to attract left-leaning personalities. Sure, cinema's given us blatant extensions of conservative policy throughout the years (Rambo, Alexander), but as the public become more spin-exhausted, voices who use film as a soapbox of warning like Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck) and Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Traffic) become more important and more popular, and with good reason.

So while Who Killed the Electric Car? isn't the most interesting documentary you'll see this year, spare a thought for the institution that brings it to the screen; people with an alternative view who cut through the corporate and political spin we live under a cloud of most of the time.

The electric car was the General Motors EV1, a prototype battery-operated car eventually put into production and finding its way onto California roads a few years ago. In 1995 a California environmental regulatory body introduced a ruling for car makers to gradually introduce zero-emission vehicles on California roads.

While fighting the ruling tooth and nail (and with no less than the Bush White House on their side), GM nevertheless introduced the EV1 in 1996 and it was an instant hit, talked up by celebrities from Ed Begley Jr to Tom Hanks and quickly garnering a devoted circle of lessees (nobody was sold one outright; an important point).

Within just a couple of years General Motors recalled and scrapped every single one. In 1999, they finalised their takeover of the gas-guzzling Hummer, the template for the SUVs that would conquer American roads, a strange coincidence. At the same time, the federal government announced huge tax incentives to buy urban tanks like the one GM was starting to market, an even stranger coincidence...

Despite waiting lists and celebrity endorsements, and having spent millions on advertising, GM claimed there was no market for the EV1. They left a group of very disgruntled former lessees who went as far as staging a funeral at a Hollywood cemetery when the last EV1s were trucked out of Los Angeles for a desert wrecking yard.

Covering the mock funeral is one example of how writer/director Paine manages to inject a lot of colour and flavour into a quite dry subject. Together with a days-long vigil outside the parking lot where the final models are awaiting destruction and the breathless pursuit of the trucks taking them away, it starts to feel like an accomplished political thriller, and you sometimes have to remind yourself we're talking about a car here. Scenes like seeing TV actress and EV1 supporter Alexandra Paul led away from a protest in cuffs give the story unexpected power.

The entertaining faéÅade is glossy, but it's a clever way to convey the important underlying message, which is that an unholy cabal of oil money, opportunistic politicians and manufacturers prepared to sacrifice the environment for profits pull all the strings.

That's hardly news to most of us, but to see such a conspiracy in action (one in which American car buyers are complicit), look no further than Who Killed the Electric Car?

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